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I believe it’s time for Rajendra K. Pachauri to take a new approach to discussing climate change or leave the chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after nearly a decade in that position. There is an unavoidable and counterproductive blurriness to the line between his personal advocacy for climate action — which is his right as an individual — and his stature as the leader of the panel, which was established in 1988 as “a policy relevant but policy neutral organization.”

The latest crystallization of this problem came last Thursday, when Pachauri participated in a meeting on “Extreme Climate Risks and California’s Future,” organized by California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Pachauri was part of a spirited discussion with Gov. Brown and Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur and adventurer who’s taken on the climate issue through his Carbon War Room effort (the moderator was Felicity Barringerof The Times).  The men chatted about everything from economic troubles and the housing bubble to opportunities for remaking California’s energy mix to ways to deal with people obstructing such changes.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, right, speaks as Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, left, and Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, listen during a panel at the Governor's Conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California's Future at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco on Dec. 15.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, right, speaks as Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, left, and Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, listen during a panel at the Governor’s Conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California’s Future at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco on Dec. 15.


Mark Hertsgaard, who covers the environment for The Nation, filed a post Thursday on the Grist blog describing a jocular moment:

Pachauri joked that [Richard] Branson could give climate deniers tickets on the aviation mogul’s planned flights into outer space. “Perhaps it could be a one-way ticket,” Pachauri said, smiling, “though I’m not sure space deserves them.”

That post was amended Sunday night after it became clear — through a series of e-mail exchanges I initiated with both Pachauri and Hertsgaard — that the concept of sending certain people into space originated with Branson. But in reviewing video of the proceedings posted on the conference Web site it’s also clear that Pachauri enthusiastically amplified on the notion.

One could discount this as jocular banter, of course. And it pales beside some of the extremely vicious rhetoric that has developed elsewhere in the climate debate. But the full tape, outside the joking, actually makes things worse, to my mind. It vividly illustrates the blurring that I see undercutting the credibility of the climate panel just when it is needed most — as the organization gets into high gear on its fifth assessment of climate change, which will roll out in 2013 and 2014.

Here’s Pachauri’s longer statement, the first part of which is spot on and illustrates how it’s possible to convey meaning and import without advocacy:

On the role of the I.P.C.C., what we are trying to do is to tell the world, through scientific work, which involves the best scientists, thousands of them mobilized and working together without any compensation from the I.P.C.C., purely as a labor of love, is the fact that if we don’t do something the impacts are going to get progressively more negative.

But the tail end of the comment illustrates a pattern that Pachauri, in particular, has slid into year after year:

And the solutions are so much in the field of attractive options that we ought to get on with it. And we’ve heard so many co-benefits. Energy security. If you’re sending hundreds of billions of dollars to other parts of the world you’re depriving your own citizens of the opportunity to invest that money in doing other productive things. So I think we’ve got to bring about this transition. And those who are becoming obstacles in implementing what is rational should be made the responsibility of Sir Richard to give this one-way ticket to outer space. Of course space would be unfortunate to get some of these fellows.

Over the weekend, I was involved in extended e-mail exchanges with Pachauri, Hertsgaard, Branson’s office and Barringer to try to clarify who said what (all before the video clarified things). This morning, once the situation was clear, Pachauri sent this note:

This whole thing was in jest, and you would notice that I did not name anybody or group. Indeed, if it were not for Sir Richard making that comment I would not have said anything like this to extend the joke further. To be honest the whole thing was in the form of light banter, and I do not even recall the second reference, to be honest. But in retrospect I should not have said it. I agree entirely.

In an interview in 2009, after another instance in which Pachauri advocated particular policies, he defended his approach this way:

“When I quote from the I.P.C.C. I make sure that whatever I say is totally accurate,” he said. “But that doesn’t prevent me from expressing my own views. I do get criticism, but if you stand still you won’t get anywhere.”

To my eye, Pachauri has strayed too often into policy statements that appear to go well beyond what the panel, in its charter and its new communication plan, is supposed to do “to ensure objectivity and transparency as well as safe-guard the IPCC as a policy-relevant but policy-neutral organization.”

Of course, my views are simply those of someone who has relied on the panel as a journalist since it was created as a remarkable experiment in science analysis and communication in 1988. (Here’s a comprehensive paper by Alan Hecht and Dennis Tirpak putting the panel in broader context.)

But my views largely mesh with the conclusions of the review of the climate panel’s procedures by the InterAcademy Council, the network of the world’s national academies of science, which last year concluded:

Straying into advocacy can only hurt I.P.C.C.’s credibility.

The climate panel itself, in meetings earlier this year, largely embraced the council’s conclusions and issued guidance for its administrative staff to create a communications plan:

…to support the “ability of the IPCC spokespersons to provide neutral and objective statements that are grounded in the assessments reports” as “this will be essential to preserving the trust and confidence placed in the IPCC by decisions makers and other key audiences.”

Of course, similar issues have arisen when government scientists, most notably James E. Hansen of NASA, have become campaigners for particular policies on emissions and critics of those with other views or agendas.

But for the leadership of the climate panel, I see the bar as substantially higher. Hansen, as a citizen and government employee, can interpret the laws on professional obligations and personal rights as he sees fit and deal with the resulting plaudits and attacks.

As the panel’s communication plan goes from outline to final form, it’ll be great to see more clarity on how its leaders might work to clarify lines that are far too fuzzy today.

With that in mind, in late November the panel distributed a letter to governments and various organizations seeking input on its plan. I wish that invitation had gone out to the full range of users, including the public here and in other countries. As a starting point, feel free to read the current incarnation of the panel’s communications strategy, and to offer ideas below.


Dot Earth, 20 December 2011